It’s fair to say the past year has not upended our perceptions of which schools produce the most football talent at each position. In fact, look back at last year’s Position U rankings, and they don’t look starkly different from this year’s, save a shake-up at defensive back. But that doesn’t mean there’s no drama at the top. In fact, 2023 could prove to be a defining year at a number of spots.
At quarterback, Oklahoma and USC have battled back and forth in recent years for the No. 1 spot, and the Trojans are on the verge of tipping the QBU scales after swiping both coach Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams from the Sooners. On the D-line, Jared Verse and Florida State are closing in at the top, while Kool-Aid McKinstry and Malachi Moore have Alabama knocking at the door of DBU.
In other words, 2023 might be the calm before the storm. And since the math doesn’t lie, the production on the field this year will have some huge implications for 2024.
A quick reminder of our formula: ESPN Stats & Information combed through data on every team dating back to 1998, looking at key markers of greatness at each position. We awarded points for college production (by way of all-conference and All-America honors), NFL draft selections and NFL production (though only through the players’ first five years — Michigan can claim responsibility for Tom Brady’s success for only so long).
There are, of course, some caveats. Notre Dame fans rightly complained that their school is punished for not having all-conference players, and while ACC commissioner Jim Phillips can probably think of at least one simple solution to that issue, we’ve gone ahead and given the Irish a score for “projected all-conference” players based on the likelihood successful players who were drafted highly or earned All-America honors would’ve gotten a leaguewide recognition, too, had Notre Dame been a part of a conference.
We’re also aware that transfers are becoming a bigger issue than ever when crediting a specific school for a player’s NFL success. But as of 2023, there remain only a handful of players who contributed significantly at two schools and also became NFL stars (Russell Wilson and Jalen Hurts top that list), so we’re sticking with our previous formula that awards all NFL-related points to the last school a player attended.
Dillon Gabriel was a solid addition to Oklahoma’s QB legacy, which includes Heisman Trophy winners Jason White, Sam Bradford, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, along with runner-up Jalen Hurts, but it’s hard not to consider the one who got away. When Lincoln Riley left for USC, he took Caleb Williams with him, and the Trojans’ new star won the Heisman last season. That cut Oklahoma’s lead at QBU in half from 2022, setting up a potentially huge swing next year, should Williams go No. 1 overall in the NFL draft, as many pundits expect.
New to the top 10: Florida didn’t actually enjoy much on-field success with Anthony Richardson at quarterback last season, but he sure did help its standing in our QBU rankings. Florida jumped from 11th to eighth in large part due to Richardson’s high draft stock. Should Kyle Trask win the starting QB job for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year and start padding his NFL stats, the Gators might see an even bigger leap next year, but Florida fans would probably trade all that for a little hope at the QB position in Gainesville this season.
Biggest risers: Pitt jumped 15 spots to No. 43 following Kenny Pickett‘s NFL debut in 2022, while Tennessee got a sizable boost from No. 71 to No. 60 thanks to Hendon Hooker‘s exceptional season, too. Inside the top 10, however, the biggest mover was Ohio State, which jumped from ninth to fifth. Few schools can claim as impressive a collegiate legacy at the QB position as the Buckeyes, who’ve landed a Heisman with Troy Smith and enjoyed a recent run of first-round picks from Dwayne Haskins to Justin Fields to C.J. Stroud. The only problem, of course, is few schools have produced so many QBs who’ve done so little at the next level. Perhaps Fields and Stroud will finally change the narrative and keep the Buckeyes climbing the standings for the title of QBU.
Who’s missing: Here is where we offer our annual apology to NC State for squeezing the Wolfpack out of proper credit for Wilson’s prolific NFL career. Per our transfer rules, he’s officially a Wisconsin alum when it comes to QBU. Just wait until Devin Leary blossoms into an NFL star, too, and all the credit goes to Kentucky. (But don’t forget, NC State fans, you’ve got all the credit for Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Finley, and should Brennan Armstrong rebound in 2023, he’s all yours, too.)
Best outside the Power 5: David and Derek Carr set the standard for Fresno State, but Jake Haener (53 TD passes, 12 INTs the past two years) certainly made his mark, too. We’ve got Fresno State at No. 15 in our rankings, well ahead of Marshall and North Dakota State among schools outside the Power 5.
OK, so the Tide might not deserve full credit for Jahmyr Gibbs, who transferred from Georgia Tech, and they certainly didn’t use him enough throughout 2022, but they’ll reap the rewards of his No. 12 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft. Gibbs continues an incredible run (no pun intended) of Alabama backs prized by the pros, joining Brian Robinson Jr. (third round, 2022), Najee Harris (first round, 2021), Josh Jacobs (first round, 2019), Damien Harris (third round, 2019), Derrick Henry (second round, 2016), Kenyan Drake (third round, 2016), T.J. Yeldon (second round, 2015), Eddie Lacy (second round, 2013), Trent Richardson (first round, 2012) and Mark Ingram II (first round, 2011) as RBs recruited by Nick Saban to go in the first three rounds of the draft.
Alabama’s spot atop the RBU rankings is secure, and Wisconsin enjoys an even bigger margin ahead of No. 3 LSU. But then things get interesting, with the Tigers, Miami, Texas and Oklahoma all incredibly closely bunched. Given Bijan Robinson‘s potential and a solid contingent of backs still wearing the Longhorns jersey, it’s possible Texas could establish itself as the clear No. 3 after this year.
New to the top 10: Oklahoma State isn’t the first team you might think of for producing elite talent at tailback, but Chuba Hubbard had a splendid career, and he’s joined Justice Hill and Chris Carson as alums getting a little run in the NFL, too. But don’t enjoy the top 10 for too long, Cowboys. Your ascent bumped Ohio State down to No. 11, and the Buckeyes have two burgeoning superstars — Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson — in their backfield now, so the scales figure to be tipped back in their direction for 2024.
Biggest riser: Coach Jimbo Fisher might have struggled to find a quarterback at Texas A&M, but he’s had a number of quality tailbacks. Isaiah Spiller (fourth round, 2021) and Devon Achane (third round, 2022) helped vault the Aggies from 63rd to 57th in the rankings. It’s not exactly the upper echelon, of course, but who’s betting against Fisher and coordinator Bobby Petrino turning things around moving forward? (Don’t answer that.)
Who’s missing: Ohio State was the obvious omission, but fellow Big Ten power Penn State also feels surprisingly low on the list. The Nittany Lions check in at No. 18, and luckily for Penn State, the future looks incredibly bright with a pair of superstar sophomores, Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, poised to add to the school’s running back legacy.
Best outside the Power 5: Before coach Mike Norvell turned Trey Benson into a star at Florida State, he helped a stable of Memphis tailbacks break through, too. Tony Pollard, Darrell Henderson Jr. and Kenneth Gainwell have all become solid pros, helping Memphis edge San Diego State and Boise State as the best non-Power 5 producer of running backs.
Wide Receiver U is the USC Trojans
USC didn’t just swipe a game-changer at QBU in the transfer portal. The Trojans also landed former Pitt star Jordan Addison last year, and he went on to become a first-round draft pick, bolstering their position atop the WRU rankings. Addison joins Drake London, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr. and JuJu Smith-Schuster among recent USC receivers in the NFL. The Trojans receiver stable remains nicely stocked for 2023, too, with Tahj Washington, Mario Williams, Brenden Rice and Michael Jackson III all back. But don’t feel too bad for Pitt. The Panthers still check in at No. 9 on our list, and 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of Larry Fitzgerald‘s stellar sophomore season in which he rightfully won the Heis– … oh, sorry, we’re being told he was actually robbed of the Heisman. So, perhaps Pitt fans really do have a lot to be angry about.
The recent run of success at receiver for Ohio State is almost enough to make Buckeyes fans forget that Urban Meyer put Zach Smith in charge of that position for six wasted years. Ohio State has had five receivers drafted in the first three rounds since 2018, and with Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka back for 2023, it’ll likely add a couple more next year. The recent success was enough to boost Ohio State from No. 5 in last year’s WRU rankings to No. 2 this year. But LSU might have the last laugh. Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson are among the NFL’s best, with Terrace Marshall Jr. a rising star and Kayshon Boutte getting his NFL shot in 2023.
New to the top 10: Notre Dame missed the cut last year, a point of consternation for fans. But our adjusted scoring system for 2023 has the Irish checking in at No. 10, narrowly nudging Clemson from the top 10. The Tigers enjoyed a tremendous run at wide receiver in the 2010s, but the past few seasons have been ugly, and this position might be one of the biggest keys to a potential return to the College Football Playoff for the Tigers in 2023.
Biggest riser: There was virtually nowhere to go but up for Boston College, which ranked No. 148 overall in last year’s WRU standings, but thanks to Zay Flowers, the Eagles have charged up 40 spots for 2023. Closer to the top of the standings, Tennessee parlayed impressive seasons by Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman into a six-spot climb to No. 12 overall. With four receivers taken in the first three rounds since 2021, it’s certainly possible the Volunteers’ climb will keep going in 2024.
Who’s missing: Here’s a genuinely astonishing fact: The last time a Texas wide receiver was taken in the first round of the NFL draft was … Roy Williams in 2004. That’s nearly 20 years of mediocrity at the position, but Xavier Worthy and Jordan Whittington at least offer some genuine hope for the future.
Best outside the Power 5: Texas has just one receiver drafted inside the first three rounds in the past 20 years. Western Michigan, on the other hand, has four: Greg Jennings, Corey Davis, Dee Eskridge and Skyy Moore. The Broncos have consistently churned out strong receivers, both in the MAC and beyond. Colorado State is the only other team outside the Power 5 to rank in our top 30.
It’s absurd that people attempt to make the case for anyone else as tight end U. Miami isn’t just a clear-cut No. 1. The Hurricanes are tops by a country mile (or an Everglades mile, if you will). In the Position U era (since 1998), the Canes have had 15 tight ends drafted. They’ve had a future NFL tight end on their roster every year. The 2007 season was the lone year their starter (or co-starter) at tight end didn’t go on to be drafted. Will Mallory added to the lineage this spring, going in the fifth round to the Indianapolis Colts, and he joins a genuinely astonishing parade of talent that includes Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, Bubba Franks, Jimmy Graham and David Njoku.
If Miami is the clear-cut No. 1, there’s also little doubt about which team is No. 2. Michael Mayer added to a long list of terrific Notre Dame tight ends when he went in the second round of this year’s NFL draft, joining the likes of Tommy Tremble, Cole Kmet, Tyler Eifert and Kyle Rudolph.
New to the top 10: None. This year’s list looks essentially the same as last year’s, but that should change in 2024 thanks to a guy named Brock Bowers, who is waiting in the wings for Georgia.
Biggest riser: Until April, Utah hadn’t seen a tight end selected since Henry Lusk went in the seventh round of the 1996 draft. But Dalton Kincaid offered an emphatic end to that drought when he was taken 25th overall by the Buffalo Bills. Kincaid’s terrific season and lofty draft status were enough to move Utah up from 131st last year to a respectable No. 74 now.
Who’s missing: Have we mentioned a guy named Bowers who plays for the two-time defending champs? Yes, Georgia narrowly missed out on the top 10 this year (it ranks 11th) despite Darnell Washington going in the third round of this year’s draft. The Bulldogs have actually had a solid run of draft picks, too — with Arthur Lynch, Isaac Nauta, Charlie Woerner, Tre’ McKitty and John FitzPatrick all selected over the past decade. That group hasn’t exactly impressed at the next level, however, so that again puts Bowers in the spotlight. He’s the clear No. 1 tight end in the country entering the season, and he has a chance to rocket UGA up the TEU board for 2024.
Best outside the Power 5: No. 14 Colorado State holds a minuscule edge over No. 15 BYU, thanks in large part to 2022 second-rounder Trey McBride. But since BYU begins life in the Big 12 this season anyway — thus joining the ranks of the Power 5 — we can reward the Rams without much hesitation.
Offensive Line U is the Alabama Crimson Tide
Last season was not a great year on the Alabama offensive line, but the Tide still saw Tyler Steen drafted in the third round. They have had an O-lineman taken in the first or second round every year since 2019, and they’ve seen 12 offensive linemen drafted in Rounds 1 or 2 during Nick Saban’s tenure as head coach. If championships are won at the line of scrimmage, it makes sense that Alabama has been the country’s best program for 15 years. The Tide have been dominant up front (on both sides of the ball), and this year’s unit includes another potential first-rounder in JC Latham.
The rest of the top 10:
2. Ohio State
5. Notre Dame
Notre Dame checks in at No. 5 on the list, but the Irish certainly could make some noise in 2023. Left tackle Joe Alt is already a dominant force, and he figures to have first-round potential. Blake Fisher looks like a high-level prospect, too, and a host of talented younger linemen are waiting in the wings. Alabama’s hold on the top spot is likely secure, but if the Irish linemen live up to their promise, Notre Dame could easily vault to No. 2 on our list.
New to the top 10: It has been a lean decade for Florida, which used to churn out talented O-linemen but has seen just one selected in the first three rounds since 2016. O’Cyrus Torrence changed the narrative a bit this year, earning All-SEC and All-America nods, and he went 59th overall in April’s NFL draft. It was enough to push the Gators back into the top 10 (up from No. 13).
Biggest riser: Northwestern wasn’t exactly in the running for O-line U, but Peter Skoronski‘s career certainly gave the Wildcats some cache at the position. Skoronski was an All-American and selected 11th overall in this year’s NFL draft, pushing Northwestern up 15 spots, to No. 61 overall.
Who’s missing: There was a time when Florida State might’ve been a real contender for the top spot, but to say the past decade has been hard times on FSU’s O-line would be putting it mildly. Since 2017, the Seminoles have been a train wreck up front, but Norvell seems to have finally found some juice on the O-line. The Seminoles have both high-end talent and ample depth this year, led by tackles Bless Harris and Jeremiah Byers. For now, FSU checks in at No. 13, but if Norvell’s rebuild continues, it’ll be back into the top 10 soon.
Best outside the Power 5: Boise State checks in at No. 24, 22 spots better than the next-closest team outside the Power 5 (Central Michigan). The Broncos have had six offensive linemen drafted in the Position U era.
Defensive Line U is the Alabama Crimson Tide
The Tide have had at least one defensive lineman drafted in the first three rounds every year since 2016, even if their 3-4 defensive scheme is heavy on outside linebackers. In the Position U era, Alabama has had 13 All-SEC selections on the D-line and five All-Americans. Perhaps as importantly as all the college hype, Alabama’s alums have had more NFL success than any other program, too.
The rest of the top 10:
2. Florida State
3. Ohio State
5. Penn State
The Seminoles actually held the No. 1 spot in our D-line U rankings until 2021, when they were overtaken by Alabama. Those were darker times in Tallahassee, however. These days, Novell has the Seminoles’ D-line humming again, and Verse, Fabien Lovett and Patrick Payton figure to add to FSU’s tally. Verse figures to be in the conversation for All-America honors and will almost certainly be a first-round pick. He’d be FSU’s fourth first-rounder on the D-line since 2013. Of course, Ohio State (with JT Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer and Michael Hall Jr.), Clemson (with Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro), Penn State (with Chop Robinson) and LSU (with Mason Smith) all have their own stars in the mix, too.
New to the top 10: Georgia certainly knows how to make an entrance. In our 2021 installment of Position U, the Bulldogs ranked 21st on the D-line, just behind Pitt. But four first-round picks in the past two years helped just a bit, and this year, UGA cracked our top 10 (pushing fellow SEC East member Tennessee out in the process). It’s definitely a good time to be in Athens.
Biggest riser: Missouri had seen seven defensive linemen drafted in the past decade, and Darius Washington looks to anchor the Tigers’ defense this season. It’s enough to push Missouri from No. 16 to No. 12 in our DLU rankings. Kentucky and Iowa State also saw six-position jumps in this year’s standings.
Who’s missing: It’s hard to figure how Pitt doesn’t check in a bit higher than 17th overall. The Panthers have, arguably, the best defensive lineman drafted in the Position U era in Aaron Donald, and they just added another first-rounder to the mix in 2023 with Calijah Kancey going 19th overall. Over the past decade, only Clemson and Ohio State have recorded more sacks per game than Pitt has, so it’s certainly not for lack of production either. And Pitt’s 14 all-conference D-linemen are more than Alabama’s (13), and its four All-America nods are better than what LSU or Michigan has produced (three each).
Best outside the Power 5: Since 2019, Houston has had three defensive linemen drafted inside the first 33 picks (Ed Oliver, Payton Turner and Logan Hall), which gives the Cougars the No. 34 ranking in our DL U standings, ahead of Boise State (40th), Cincinnati (44th) and USF (48th).
Georgia has had six linebackers drafted in the first three rounds since 2021, which has helped the Bulldogs open up a relatively safe lead over Alabama for the title of LBU. More noteworthy, Georgia’s linebackers in the NFL have contributed far and away the most production at the next level, with the likes of Will Witherspoon, Thomas Davis, Justin Houston and Roquan Smith becoming genuine stars at the next level.
The rest of the top 10:
3. Ohio State
4. Penn State
Will Anderson Jr. is gone, but Alabama’s linebacker depth chart remains impressive, with Dallas Turner likely to add his name to the list of Tide superstars at the position. The real mover next year, however, might be Clemson, which returns two All-America candidates in Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr., both of whom could find their way into the first round of next year’s draft.
New to the top 10: Channing Crowder, Jonathan Bostic and Brandon Spikes are among the Florida alums who had impressive NFL careers, and Ventrell Miller will be the next to get his shot in the pros. It’s enough to push the Gators into the top 10, just a few fractions of a point ahead of both UCLA and LSU.
Biggest riser: Bryan Cook helped the Kansas City Chiefs win this year’s Super Bowl, and he also helped push Cincinnati up 14 spots in our LBU standings to land at No. 45. Inside the top 25, the biggest mover was Iowa, with first-rounder Jack Campbell helping boost the Hawkeyes from No. 23 up to No. 17. Given how much Campbell had to do to overcome Iowa’s offense, it feels like he should’ve earned some extra credit here, too.
Who’s missing: LSU isn’t far off from the top 10, and though it’ll be two more seasons before Harold Perkins is eligible for the NFL draft, it already looks pretty safe to say his time with the Tigers ought to vault them a good bit higher than their current No. 12 ranking.
Best outside the Power 5: Temple has had six linebackers drafted in the Position U era, led by first-rounder Haason Reddick, who’s racked up 47 sacks and a Pro Bowl nod in his six-year NFL career. The Owls check in at No. 36 in our LBU ranking, followed closely by BYU at No. 37 and Southern Miss at 38.
Defensive Back U is the LSU Tigers
We have a new official title holder for DBU. It’s been an intensely close battle between LSU and Ohio State for years — with Alabama and Florida in the mix, too — but the Tigers take the top spot in 2023. Credit a solid debut season for Derek Stingley Jr., who is one of eight LSU defensive backs drafted since the team’s 2019 national championship. Major Burns could be the next in line for the Tigers, but they’ll have to survive plenty of pressure from the Buckeyes and a host of SEC rivals if they want to retain the top spot.
The rest of the top 10:
3. Ohio State
6. Florida State
10. Virginia Tech
The margin between LSU, Alabama and Ohio State remains razor thin, and with two budding stars in Kool-Aid McKinstry and Malachi Moore, the Tide certainly have a shot at dethroning the Tigers in 2024. But keep an eye on Georgia, too. The Bulldogs have moved up one spot in each of the past two years (from ninth in 2021 to seventh this year), have had eight DBs drafted over the past three years and have three of the four preseason All-SEC first-team defensive backs in 2023.
New to the top 10: None. DB was the only position group to see a change at the top from last year, but no teams fell out of the top 10. That could change in 2024, however, as the gap between the Hokies at No. 10 and Utah at No. 19 is about the same as the gap between Virginia Tech and No. 8 Texas.
Biggest riser: Sauce Gardner has done wonders for Cincinnati’s DBU hopes, and after a first-round selection in 2022 and an impressive rookie year for the New York Jets, he’s got the Bearcats up to No. 31 — 14 spots better than a year ago and up from 68th in 2021. Mississippi State also made some big moves, jumping from No. 37 into the top 25 (at No. 24) thanks to 2023 first-rounder Emmanuel Forbes.
Who’s missing: South Carolina checks in at No. 20, but there’s some real upside for the Gamecocks in the coming years. Jaycee Horn and Cam Smith are burgeoning prospects in the NFL, and South Carolina has had 11 defensive backs selected overall since 2009.
Best outside the Power 5: UCF is No. 28 in our DBU standings, with Cincinnati and Fresno State the only other programs outside the Power 5 to rank in the top 40. The Knights have had eight DBs drafted since 2012, including first-rounder Mike Hughes in 2018.
The rest of the top 10:
6. Ohio State
Special-teamers are people, too, so we’re happy to award FSU and Texas A&M with their Position U accolades. Florida State’s success is well documented; however, it’s also worth noting no other team that finished better than .500 last year missed more field goals than the Noles (5). After finishing in the top 20 in punting average in all but one year from 2016 through 2021, the Aggies checked in at No. 66 last season, yet another thing for Fisher to worry about.